Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What Happens When a Viral Participatory Project is Too Successful? Diagnosing the Power of the Love Locks

Last week, the international press lit up with a story from Paris: the city is removing the "love locks" from the Pont des Arts bridge. 45 tons of rusting padlocks, inscribed with lover's names, were hauled off to protect the historic bridge and its views of the city. And so, one of the most successful, accidental, and fraught participatory projects of the past decade comes to an end.

The "love locks" are not a project with an institutional or artistic director. Nor are they historic. They started to proliferate on bridges around the world in the mid-2000s. The concept is simple: visit a picturesque bridge in an historic city. Carve or write your names on a padlock. Lock the lock to the bridge, throw the key in the water below. Your love is memorialized forever... or until the municipality decides that the locks must go.

No one planned the love locks, but their success is rooted in the same principles that make all the best participatory projects work:
  • it requires no instructions beyond its own example. See the other locks on the bridge, and you immediately understand how to participate. The other participants teach you how to play. While the tools require some forethought (purchasing and inscribing a lock), on the most active bridge, enterprising vendors have sprung up, ready to sell you a lock and inscribe it for you.
  • it is simple to do, but it feels significant. So many participatory projects do the opposite, requiring you to take a dozen tricky steps to no meaningful end. Payoff here is fast and powerful. 
  • it has emotional resonance. You don't need to write a missive about your relationship, just affix a symbol (which has been helpfully assigned by everyone else). And yet, the symbol feels important. It is an expression of the idea that love is forever and no one can tear you apart. I've read stories of people affixing locks during honeymoons, but also after the death of a spouse or a child. Sentimentalities can be embarrassing to say aloud... which means we are constantly seeking comfortable, often symbolic, ways to express them. 
  • it is durational. One of the reasons lovers are so frustrated by the removal of the locks is that they can no longer fulfill step two of participation: visiting your lock years later and reconnecting with time past. Few couples will actually do it, but for those who do, there is a huge secondary sentimental payoff. If your contribution is thrown into the trash bin at the end of the day it was made, it may feel trivial. The longer it stays, the longer the perceived commitment to the participants and their experience.
  • it connects you to something greater than yourself. We often say at our museum that "make and share is better than make and take." We're constantly seeking ways to invite people to participate in projects that grow over time, so participants can see how their contribution became part of a greater whole. The love locks do this in an incredible way, connecting your love relationship to those of hundreds of thousands of other couples. It reminds me of that moment in a wedding when the officiant turns to the audience and says "all of you are here to bear witness to this commitment." The locks bear witness to each other, and to everyone who affixes one.
Of course, it is this great collective uprising of love and locks that is leading to the love locks' downfall. I support any municipality that feels that the locks must go. I understand that they can pose a danger to people's safety. That they invite tourists to vandalize others' cities. That they are another way to capitalize on sentimentality.

Yet still I see them as beautiful lessons in how we all want to participate. We just need the right opportunity and mechanism. That's the key.

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